Tucson mom Marissa Racadio was agonizing over whether to send her young children back to school — until she watched the board meeting on COVID precautions for the upcoming school year.
Racadio, who watched the Tucson Unified School District meeting from home, decided to enroll her kids in the district’s online school. It’s the only way she feels her kids will be safe.
“I don't like remote learning,” she said. “It's a necessary evil, but my kids did not thrive doing that. I really do want to send them back to in-person school. I just haven't seen anybody make that actually possible.”
Arizona recently banned schools from requiring masks, and last week Gov. Doug Ducey's office said a couple of school districts were breaking the law by requiring unvaccinated students to quarantine if they are exposed to COVID-19 — a charge the school districts are challenging.
Paired with Arizona’s large class sizes, many Tucson parents are feeling nervous about their children returning to a classroom — especially those under 12 who are still not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. Weighing the risk of contracting the virus with the benefit of in-person learning is the difficult choice many parents are finding themselves having to make.
More than 151,600 children and teens in Arizona have contracted COVID-19, and 32 have died, according to state data. In Pima County, about 19,500 children have contracted the virus.
Racadio’s fifth graders and third graders are special needs and have a harder time with some of the precautions, and one child is immunocompromised.
“Everyone's going back to school, and we're pretending like everything is all right when it is very not all right,” she says. “And I just don't want to find out the hard way that my kids’ immune systems are not going to hold up.”
In an informal survey by the Arizona Daily Star that had 180 participants, 39.7% said masks should be required in schools, and 30.7% said schools should have the option of requiring masks. A little less than a third, 29.6%, thought masks should be completely optional, inline with the new state law.
The main concern of parents who took the survey was the risk to their young children who can’t be vaccinated yet. Many parents also worried about the new variants; schools not having masks requirements as an option should things get worse; and their children passing the virus to vulnerable people and contributing to community spread. Many also felt the prohibition on a mask mandate was driven by politics rather than public health guidance.
“Parents have a right to feel like their school and district is doing everything they can to keep them safe — following public health guidance that is free from political motivations,” said one parent who has an elementary student and preschooler in the Catalina Foothills District.
“Schools have the best information about their students and families. … They are in a much better position to make this decision than the governor,” said one TUSD middle school parent about mask requirements.
“If you take away masks and quarantine, what is left? Inadequate social distancing? Inadequate ventilation in schools? Schools are told to use layers of mitigation but then told they can’t use masks or quarantine. What other layers can they use?” said an Amphi parent of an elementary and a high school student.
One parent in Amphi who said masks should be optional said she feels safe because students at the high school level are old enough to get vaccinated.
“I may feel differently if my children were still in elementary school,” she said.
A number of survey participants who said masks should be optional felt this way because their children were older and able to be vaccinated. Other common reasons included: They prioritize individual choice over communal responsibility, they don’t think masks are effective, they think masks hurt children’s ability to socialize, and because children are at lower risk of severe illness.
An overwhelming number of survey respondents — 80.2% — said unvaccinated children exposed to the virus should be required to quarantine; 19.8% said they should not have to.
TUSD is requiring students and staff who test positive for COVID to quarantine, but any quarantine measures for those who may be exposed or have COVID-like symptoms will be up to the county health department.
Likewise, most school districts say they are taking direction from the county health department on when to quarantine exposed students. And while the health department is asking unvaccinated people to quarantine after a confirmed exposure, the contact tracing process takes two to three days, leaving a lag time that could leave more people vulnerable to infection.
But despite concerns, most parents say their children’s need for in-person school and interactions outweighs the risks.
On Wednesday, TUSD, which serves about 42,000 students, had about 1,200 enrolled in Tucson Unified Virtual Academy in grades K-12. In the last week, the enrollment increased from 700 students to 1,200. Nonetheless, a very small percentage of public school students are selecting the online options.
About 2,000 students in Tucson’s major school districts, which don’t all have an online option for all grades, are registered for an online-only option, though several school districts said that number is increasing daily.
Among the Star survey respondents, sending their children in person accounted for 90.7% of answers, though some mentioned they may still change their minds.
Many of the parents choosing the in-person option are still nervous, with 41.9% of survey respondents saying they were not sure if their child's school had enough mitigation measures in place to feel safe, 24% said they did not feel it was safe, and 34.1% said they did feel safe.
Even TUSD board members expressed discomfort during the meeting about the new school year with the few mitigation measures left available to them.
Board member Ravi Grivois-Shah, a family physician, said he is very concerned about what will happen with the new COVID variants and feels the district should take the most proactive stance possible, given their limitations.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended universal masking in schools, regardless of people’s vaccination status. The World Health Organization said masking is still important to protect against the new delta variant. The CDC has said that unvaccinated people should still wear masks, which would mean all elementary school children. But already in the Vail school district, which kicked off the school year last week, many young children are attending classes without a mask.
Recent actions by the governor are “completely contradictory to any public health measures and science,” Grivois-Shah said at the July 20 board meeting.
“We're entering an experiment of having 40,000 potentially unmasked students come together in 80 sites — that no one's ever done before,” he said. “We are going to be the first ones entering this experiment, too, being one of the first states to go live with in-person instruction for the fall semester.”
TUSD’s safety measures include:
- posting signs that strongly encourage mask wearing;
- social distancing to the extent possible, which will be limited due to having full class sizes;
- hand sanitizer in every classroom and common areas;
- cleaning and disinfecting high touch areas at least once a day;
- on-site rapid testing for students or staff showing COVID-like symptoms;
- sending anyone with a positive test home until they either test negative with improving symptoms, have a return-to-school or work note from a health-care provider, or they complete 10 days of isolation from school;
- the county health department handling contact tracing and all other direction to quarantine, which could have a two- to three-day lag time;
- continuing to update weekly the COVID-19 dashboard of positive cases;
- safety measures on buses that include one-directional loading and unloading, encouraging the use of hand sanitizer, skipping every other row when possible and cleaning twice a day;
- for meals, encouraging hand washing and social distancing when possible.
Who’s keeping the
Transmission of COVID-19 within schools has been low, but Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo says their most powerful strategies have been masking, social distancing and the flexibility and autonomy that the board had to respond to local conditions.
“We're not operating with that anymore,” he said at the board meeting. “We're going into classrooms where our distancing ability is going to be significantly compromised, especially in those younger grades, younger than 12, which is what I'm personally concerned about. More than anything else, you're going to have half the students with masks and some of them won't have any masks.”
Melissa Rynders, an Amphitheater mom who has one child in elementary school and one in middle school, mostly worries more about her younger son since her older one is vaccinated. She will be sending him to school wearing a mask and hopes other parents will do the same.
“With our youngest we've been talking a lot about even if other people don't do it, we're doing it because we want to keep everyone safe,” she says.
Her kids are used to wearing masks — it’s second nature to just grab it as they leave the house, she says. But she also understands that a lot of parents are just tired of enforcing it. As long as the schools keeps emphasizing hand-washing and her son is wearing a mask, she feels pretty confident he’ll be safe.
Similarly, another Amphi parent, Raylene Streuber, has older children who are vaccinated and worries more about the safety of her youngest, who’s still not eligible.
She is sending him in person although she does not feel that the mitigation is sufficient.
“I kind of feel like he's going into the lion's den because they're taking away the masking,” she said. “And I don't even know if his teacher’s going to be vaccinated.”
She’s scared but feels that it’s imperative for her son’s mental health that he go to school in person. He wants to see his friends, and he’s behind in school from a year of remote learning.
“And if I kept him home one more year, he'd be really in a bad spot because everybody else is going back,” she says. “It's a very hard decision, and I'm just hoping that the vaccine comes out soon for his age group. So I'm really gonna have to work with him on doing what he can to protect himself because nobody else is.”